- Reading time
- 5 min.
About a tricky sea voyage in a barrel, a wondrous lollypop city and 33 knights; about a magical squirrel, a bewitched swan and a discombobulating bumblebee: below is a summary of The Tale of Tsar Saltan, as described in the libretto. Ouri Bronchti, our Head of Music, has picked out and commented on five musical highlights.
It is evening and three sisters sit spinning in the front room of a village house near Tmutarakan. The eldest and the middle sister are none too industrious, supported in this by Babaricha. Their younger sister Militrissa, on the other hand, works tirelessly. The sisters dream aloud of what they would do if they became the tsarina. One would throw a big party for the whole world, the other would make a robe for everyone, and the youngest would “bear the tsar a brave warrior son”. Tsar Saltan happens to overhear the sisters’ conversation from behind the door. He goes into the room and instructs everyone to come with him to the palace. Militrissa becomes his tsarina, and he makes her sisters the cook and the weaver. The sisters are terribly jealous of Militrissa and urge Babaricha to come up with a cunning plan by way of retaliation.
A long while later. At the tsar’s palace in Tmutarakan, Tsarina Militrissa awaits Saltan’s return from war. Messengers have been sent to the tsar bearing the joyful news of the birth of his son Gvidon, but there has been no response. Everyone idolizes the little tsarevitch. An old man tries to entertain the child with stories.
The cook walks around Militrissa carrying a platter of food and the weaver is busy making a carpet. Not for a moment does Militrissa suspect that her mean sisters and Babaricha have played a nasty trick on her: they secretly intercepted the letter to the tsar and instead wrote to him saying that Militrissa “has given birth to a little monster, the likes of which have never been seen before”. The long-awaited messenger returns with a response: Saltan has decreed that “the tsarina and her offspring must without delay be put into a barrel and thrown into deep water”. Amidst the cries and wailing of the bewildered people, the tsarina and her son are cast into the sea in a barrel.
The barrel in which tsarevitch Gvidon has grown up floats on the water. Eventually, waves wash the barrel up on the island of Buyan. Apart from Militrissa and her now adult son, the area round about is deserted. Suddenly the tsarevitch sees a swan in the air as it tries to evade a bird of prey. The tsarevitch kills the raptor with an arrow. The Swan promises to repay him for this act of kindness and divulges a secret: “You have not saved a swan, but brought a girl back to life.”
Night falls and mother and son fall asleep. When they awake, they cannot believe their eyes: before them is the wondrous city of Ledenets (literally: colourful lollypop). All around are people thanking Gvidon for freeing them of the evil magician and they ask the prince to be their tsar.
Gvidon rules in Ledenets. All is well, except that he is homesick. A trading vessel can be seen in the distance, carrying merchants to Tmutarakan. A troubled Gvidon gazes at them. How he would love to visit his country of origin to see his father. He asks the Swan to show him his father, while he himself remains invisible. The Swan instructs Gvidon to dive into the sea three times, upon which he turns into a bumblebee.
Tsar Saltan’s royal quarters in Tmutarakan. Next to him are the cook, the weaver and Babaricha. The tsar has prepared a lavish welcome for the merchants, who tell him about the wondrous city of Ledenets, where Gvidon rules, and about the marvels in that region: a squirrel that can nibble gold nuts and sing songs, and thirty-three horsemen who rise up from the depths of the sea. Saltan wants immediate preparations to be made for him to travel there and see these marvels for himself, but Babaricha and Militrissa’s sisters try to distract him by telling him about another wonder: a ravishingly beautiful princess, more beautiful than any to be found in the whole of Ledenets. This irritates the bumblebee, which circles around them and stings the evil aunts. General commotion breaks out as attempts are made to catch the bumblebee, but it manages to escape.
Tsarevitch Gvidon cannot rest until he finds the beautiful princess he heard about at Saltan’s court. He is prepared to go to the ends of the earth to find her and he asks the Swan for help. “Why search so far afield? I am that princess”, says the Swan, transforming into an exquisite demoiselle. In the morning, Militrissa comes to the beach and, overjoyed, she blesses the two young people.
On the island of Buyan everyone awaits the arrival of Saltan. The tsar appears accompanied by his entourage, with the cook, the weaver and Babaricha at the front. Saltan is amazed at the three wonders Gvidon shows him. He asks the Swan Princess to show him Tsarina Militrissa as well. The tsarina appears on the steps in front of the palace. Saltan asks after their son, at which Gvidon steps forward and says: “That is I!” The cook and the weaver fall on their knees before Tsar Saltan and beg his forgiveness. A terrified Babaricha takes to her heels. Beside himself with joy, the tsar pardons everyone.